He's a 40-something, Harvard-educated African-American from Illinois. But even all those "eerie similarities," as he put it, are not enough for Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello to get fully behind Barack Obama.

So who and what does one of rock's most outspoken activists believe in, and why is he coming to town for the Republican National Convention?

He let us know in a phone interview Monday, sandwiched between Rage's headlining set at last weekend's mammoth Reading Festival in England -- where the band played its entire opening song dressed in Guantanamo Bay prisoner garb (bag-covered heads and all) -- and its concert Wednesday during the Democratic convention.

Q What do you hope to achieve during these conventions?

A It's important for those of us who do not share the vision of either of the two political parties to continue to organize and struggle and protest and to let our views be known. I believe that they represent the views of tens of millions of Americans who want universal health care, an immediate end to the war, an end to torture and prosecution of the criminals who have perpetrated these domestic and foreign crimes. Those voices need to be heard, and heard forcefully.

Q Are you targeting one convention more than the other in terms of anger and protest?

A I'm playing three shows at the DNC and at least two at the RNC. They're for very different things. The Rage performance at the DNC is to support Iraq Veterans Against the War. One of the other shows there is to support the Ralph Nader proposition to open the debates to more ideas and more parties.

In Minneapolis and St. Paul, I'm proud to be playing the show for the SEIU [Service Employee Industry Union] to "take back Labor Day" and support unions and working-class issues, and then the Rage show there is part of the umbrella of protest against the past, present and future crimes of Republicans.

Q You have a history of working with the SEIU and didn't just latch onto it for this concert. What attracted you to it?

A I come from a strong union background, an Illinois coal-miner family, and I have been a member of Musicians Local No. 47 in Hollywood for 20 years or so. The SEIU is the fastest-growing labor union in the United States and it represents a large segment of people who need much more of a voice and much more of a toehold in the ongoing struggle for social and economic justice. I support them wholeheartedly.

Q We keeping hearing and reading hints that Rage is going to pull some kind of a "stunt" here. Any more of a hint what that might be?

A We have a show booked at the Target Center. That's all I'm saying [laughs].

Q The Rage show at the 2000 Democratic convention is still a point of controversy. How do you remember it?

A There wasn't a whole lot of controversy -- there was an enormous police riot. At the end of it, there were probably between 20 to 40 Black Bloc anarchist protesters who were attempting to scale a fence. It was a situation that could've easily been contained by the thousands of riot police. Instead, they gave an order that these 10,000 to 15,000 kids in a tight, penned-in area had 15 minutes to leave. They only gave them two minutes, and then they attacked them. There's video, you can see it happen that way.

At the time, the Los Angeles police stated very clearly they were not going to let this become another Seattle. The reports from my friends on the streets of Denver is there's a similar vibe there, but who knows?

Q Anything to worry about here?

A The protesters may have something to worry about, but not the police. There could always be a police riot; that's happened throughout the history of this great land. I certainly hope it won't happen in your fine city, though.

Q What about the people who believe musicians should just shut up and sing and leave politics offstage?

A If you're a musician who lives in the United States, when you pick up a guitar, you don't put down the Constitution. The only time people ever criticize performers or entertainers for expressing a political opinion is when it disagrees with their own political opinions. When it's an actor, like Ronald Reagan or Arnold Schwarzenegger, they're lauded for their fluent political acumen. You don't have to have an honors degree in political science from Harvard University to speak out on these matters. I do, of course, but you don't need that to know right from wrong.

Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658